A Spliced Utopia

Watching Utopia is a difficult experience. It’s as if the footage has been spliced together from two very different worlds: on one hand there are an oppressed people struggling in impoverished third world conditions, something you might see in news footage of West Papua or the Gaza Strip. Yet the people and the dusty red landscapes are all too familiar, because this documentary is set in Australia, my own country. And it is the first time I have ever felt ashamed of my country.

John Pilger’s new documentary is a sort of spiritual successor to his earlier work, The Secret Country-The First Australians Fight Back (1985) which explored the destitution and discrimination under which the first Australians have had to suffer under European governance. Not much has changed in the interim, which perhaps explains why Utopia feels angrier, less detached from its argument, more engaged with its cast of heroes and villains. Throughout Pilger, who steps before the camera to narrate, seems to adopt an air of constant frustration, the interwoven stories of so many lost lives and victims just fade into the closing credits, denied a just resolution or even much hope for the future.

Some critics have accused Pilger of lacking objectivity, eschewing a studied analysis for emotional impact. Yet the plight of Indigenous Australians is an issue that seethes with rancor and confliction, delving into the very heart of our nation’s history and identity. Pilger interviews a myriad group of Australians, black and white, and every time is confronted with a torrent of emotions, too often a debilitating despair and hopelessness amongst the former,  hostility and heated denial amongst the latter. At one point Pilger walks along the harbor of Sydney, stopping to interview passing Australians as they celebrate yet another Australia Day, old and young, male and female, yet all white and all decked out in Australian flags and Southern Crosses, asking why Indigenous Australians aren’t as exuberant about January 26th. “You’ve got no idea what you’re talking about” storms a beefy bloke, steering his family out of the eye of Pilger’s glaring lens; the truth is UnAustralian.

Yet while the film’s theme never loses its power, the documentary’s structure does sag in the middle. We’re presented with a list of crimes without much connection beyond the common thread of gross injustice. And Pilger perhaps gives more time to some of his stories then he should and less to more contentious issues—for instance, the debate concerning the reality of the Frontier Wars is only covered by a brief stop at the Australian War Memorial. Furthermore, it is a documentary that tells only one side of the story—albeit a side often neglected and ignored in our mainstream media—and interviewed politicians such as Mal Brough, Coalition Minister for Indigenous Affairs between the crucial years of 2006-2007, are given short shrift so that you get the feeling that Pilger is only filming them to throw some obvious villains into the mix. Brough is never given much of a chance to explain the Intervention, the most divisive event in Indigenous affairs the 21st century has given us .

Is there much hope for the future? Pilger seems to have little faith in our political system—the Intervention is portrayed as deceitful and absurd, while Kevin Rudd is lost for words when Pilger asks why the then Prime Minister rejected any chance for compensation amongst the victims of the Stolen Generation. But this is not a nihilistic documentary. Throughout Pilger meets an array of Indigenous Australians who have remained strong and proud in their collective struggles. Arthur Murray, recounts in a quiet, stern voice the campaign that ensued after his son, Eddie died in police custody, eventually resulting in the 1987 Royal Commission into the Aboriginal Deaths in Police Custody. It is stories like Murray’s which give hope for the future—that as a people, we may one day have unity and peace across this great, sunburnt land.